The foundation of the University of Padua dates back to 1222, when a group of students in search of greater autonomy and independence left Bologna for Padua. Padua began welcoming students speaking different languages and coming from different cultures from throughout Europe, referred to as Nationes. Under the Republic of Venice (La Serenissima), the University of Padua maintained a profile of profound freedom. Religious freedom guaranteed protection from the repressive policies of the Counter-Reformation, allowing the city to host students and educators from all over Europe suspected of heresy and thought to be non-believers. Padua was a place where one could study and teach independently, even with respect to one’s faith. Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642), recalled his intense nostalgia for Padua; shortly before his death in Arcetri, he remembered his unique sense of freedom while in Padua as “the best eighteen years of my life.”
Padua occupies a special place in history for women in science and academics. In 1678, while the rest of Italy and other European universities enrolled only men, a young Venetian woman, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (Venice, June 5, 1646 – Padua, July 26, 1684) was awarded a Doctorate in Philosophy. By welcoming her into the academic community of Padua, she became the first woman in modern history to earn the academic title.
Students sought freedom from foreign oppression during their revolt on February 8, 1848; as part of the Italian unification (il Risorgimento) students also participated in the First Italian War of Independence and The Expedition of the Thousand in 1860. The University of Padua paid a price for freedom in the fight against Nazism and Fascism. In 1943, during the inaugural speech of the University’s academic year, Rector Concetto Marchesi invited students to rise against “the oppressors of Italy”. Recognised for its heroism and clarity of purpose, the University of Padua became the only Italian university awarded with the Gold Medal for Military Valour. The reason for this, is perfectly mirrored in its yearning for freedom, “in the last conflict the University knew, first among all, how to become a centre of conspiracy and war. Padua used its University as a temple of civil responsibility and a garrison of heroic resistance.”